My father, an avid weekend golfer, died of a melanoma that grew undetected on the back of his head, hidden by his thick black hair. Who knew? Certainly not him, despite seeming he sometimes did have eyes in the back of his head. And several decades ago, hair loss professionals, barbers and hairdressers were not educated to look for signs of skin cancer on the scalp or nape of the neck. While awareness has certainly risen in our day, it surprises me how ignorant we remain, both about causes and prevention of this treatable skin cancer.

Melanoma is a cancer that starts in a certain type of mutated skin cell. Since the scalp is covered with skin, the largest bodily organ, we need to pay attention to melanoma when hair loss is part of the equation.

Hair loss and melanoma pair up in several ways:

  • An unexpected side benefit of losing one’s hair is easier detection of suspicious skin spots on your head and neck.
  • Since the prime prevention strategy for avoiding skin cancers is ‘stay out of direct sunlight’, this is especially important for those with thinning hair or complete hair loss.
  • A secondary treatment is to ‘cover up’ with both high SPF sunscreen and a hat, scarf or other head-covering, also recommended for those with hair loss.
  • Most hair loss occurring related to melanoma is from post-surgical treatment by chemotherapy, not the melanoma itself.
  • Hair loss professionals, hair dressers and barbers familiar with hair loss are more likely to be trained to notice and mention suspicious spots, moles or freckles, especially when clients request or educate them to do so.

Causes, prevention, and finding melanoma early
Most skin cancers are preventable. You can reduce the number of incidents by knowing about skin cancer risk factors and warning signs. Please always consult a dermatologist or health care provider.

Early sun exposure and repeated severe sunburns in childhood may cause changes in the DNA of skin cells that starts them on a path to becoming melanoma cells years later. Tanning booths may also cause melanoma to start. So remember to seek shade while avoiding direct sunlight at peak times, and use hats and sunglasses along with sunscreen.

As for what to look for, here are the basic ABDCE’s of detecting a melanoma mole or freckle as different from a normal one:

A= Asymmetry- unequal shape
B= Border- irregular, jagged or blurred edges to a mole
C= Color- The color is not usually the same all over and may include shades of brown,  black, or even patches of pink, red, white, or blue.
D= Diameter- suspect spots are usually (though not always) larger than ¼ inch, about the size of  a little fingernail

The ABCDE rule can help you tell a normal mole from an abnormal mole. Moles that have any of these signs should be checked by a doctor. It is also important to find a melanoma early, when it is most likely to be completely cured. Check your skin every month for new spots or unusual formations using your awareness of the warning signs of melanoma mentioned above. Again, see your doctor when you have concerns.

The American Cancer Society has a slogan, “Slip! Slop! Slap! … and Wrap,” a catchy way to remind people to ‘slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen, slap on a hat, and wrap on sunglasses’ when you are going to be outside in the sun.  Sounds like a fun way to address a deadly serious issue.

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